Lean in or lean on?

Sandberg, provocative and inspiring, has been making this case publicly ever since her book, “Lean In,” published earlier this year.

Whatever women decide for themselves about Sandberg’s Lean In motto, they should be thankful to her for elevating the public dialogue and forcing us to confront our own values and choices before us.

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The Sandberg choice: women should grab leadership opportunities that they might otherwise abdicate to their male peers.  She cites statistics that show how men monopolize corporate leadership positions, boards and the U.S. government.

“Only 20 percent of the U.S. Senate is women….after the election everyone pointed to this enormous success story that women were taking over the Senate…. last time I checked 20 percent is not a majority,” she says.

Trying to have it all and asserting there are no trade-offs doesn’t sit well with me. Raising three kids, being a good wife, racing up the corporate ladder, leading my community, and pursuing political change comes with weighty choices. While I do embrace the spirit of Lean In, I choose a different version of success. I choose balance.

I am a mother of three young children. I am also the head of Whirlpool Corporation’s government relations office in Washington, D.C.  I am the exact person Sandberg wants to enlist into her Lean In movement.

Yet, I am not sure if women can truly have it all – or at least have it all without costly trade-offs.  

I have tried it before. After many grueling years of international travel as a Deputy Assistant negotiator at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office for the Bush Administration, it is no accident that I find myself now with Whirlpool. Three day jaunts to Geneva for all-nighters and good parenting are not simpatico. 10 days away in New Delhi to convince India to engage in the WTO Doha Round when your children are home with bronchitis drives one right over the cliff.

Whirlpool’s mantra “WORK SMARTER, NOT HARDER” resonates with me.  I am not evaluated on how much face time I put in, but on whether I deliver results.

As Sandberg speaks, ticking off the opportunities lost for women, my self-worth deflates. Have I neglected to serve as a leader? Have I conceded opportunities, let down my senior colleagues, my direct reports, not moving back to headquarters to pursue career enhancing opportunities?  Why do I have this conversation with myself, my female peers in Washington, over and over again?

Success for me, I have realized, is not about making a binary choice. 

Success, for me, is finding balance. I embrace the responsibility to raise my children, stay back when my husband travels, and to work and travel smartly. I am not sure if Sandberg would approve.

The thing is I have tried leaning in before. I’ve tried burning myself into the ground. The remains weren’t pretty. For too long I only knew fifth and first gear (another binary mentality). I recognized it was time to change.

These days I embrace endurance. I spend my time where I am needed the most. I have learned at Whirlpool to “lean on” my very valuable peers, women and men. The flexibility Whirlpool has provided me has cultivated in me an abiding loyalty to the company and its leaders. It never gave me a binary choice, did not force me to choose between my job, being a great parent and an involved member of my community.

Nothing is possible without my tribe of professional working moms, fellow boosters of my philosophy that balance is paramount. I rely heavily on an incredible network of “professional moms” to tell me what programs and playgroups to join. This also requires the support of men too: my supportive husband, soccer dads, and my colleagues who partner with me to deliver on our objectives.

I call this, Lean On.

Bovim is a wife, mother of three, a yoga instructor at Sculpt DC, and head of Whirlpool Corporation’s Government Relations office in Washington D.C. She also sits on the GW Women’s Health Board and is active in her community.